John Oliver cuts into police accountability by dicing up the 'few bad apples' metaphor

John Oliver tackles police accountability
(Image credit: Last Week Tonight)

"As you know, the police have been at the center of a great deal of controversy lately," John Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight. "It's been impossible to escape, from the Black Lives Matter to Colin Kaepernick's protest, to Mary J. Blige awkwardly singing a Springsteen song at Hillary Clinton." That was the setup for a discussion on police accountability, and why police and the rest of us sorely need more of it.

"The trust between police and the communities they serve is clearly a cornerstone of civilized society," Oliver said. That has been eroded by "a series of controversial police shootings," and while police "have a difficult, dangerous, challenging job," that's "all the more reason to ensure that it's done to the highest standard." Police and their unions blame most of the problems on a few "bad apples" — not institutional bias, or bad laws, or strong disincentives for prosecuting cops — and Oliver had some problems with that analogy, starting with a silly one: "Snow White wasn't afraid of apples before she took a bite out of that really bad one, but I'm telling you, the next time an old lady comes at her with a piece of fruit, Snow's going to get the f--k out of there."

Nobody really knows how many "bad apples" there are on U.S. police forces, but the most comprehensive tally of fatal police shootings shows that of the thousands since 2005, 77 police were charged with murder or manslaughter, and only 26 have been convicted. Oliver walked through why that number is so low and offered some ideas on how to fix the system. "A lack of trust in police accountability leads to a lack of trust in police," he said.

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After showing a class where black kids are taught how to safely interact with police, and a white cop blaming a few bad apples, Oliver wrapped up: "Here's the thing about that. The phrase isn't 'It's just a few bad apples, don't worry about it,' the phrase is, 'A few bad apples spoil the barrel.' And we currently have a system set up to ignore bad apples, destroy bad apples' records, persecute good apples for speaking up, and shuffle dangerous, emotionally unstable apples around to the point that children have to attend f---ing apple classes! You cannot look at our current situation and claim that anybody likes them apples." Watch below. Peter Weber

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.